The night Leon Spinks did the impossible
No one is going to argue that Leon Spinks’ victory over Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship on February 15, 1978, was one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. Spinks, a 26-year-old Marine veteran, was fighting in only his eighth professional fight, while Muhammad Ali had been a two-time heavyweight champion and was considered by many to be the greatest boxer of all time in the heavyweight division. The odds against him were off the charts, but Spinks fought a courageous and strategic fight, ultimately winning a 15-round split decision to become the new heavyweight champion.
At the time, Ali was 36 years old and had been in the ring in the three or four years previous with some of the biggest names in boxing, including Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton. many skeptics did not think he had beaten Norton legitimately at Yankee Stadium, and the “Thrilla in Manila” against Frazier was enough to chop years off any fighter’s career. Rather hairy experiences against Earnie Shavers and Jimmy Young cast even more doubt in the minds of many.
It was a foregone conclusion that Ali was past his prime, but the general consensus was that he still had the skills and experience to rate him the considerable edge against someone with only seven pro bouts to his credit. Spinks wasn’t completely unknown, having won an Olympic gold medal in boxing for the United States in 1976, but he was relatively untested; just a couple of fights prior, he had struggled to a draw with Scott LeDoux.
The fight took place at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas and was heavily publicized, and it would have benefited Ali to be impressive, as he was looking to prove that he was still worthy of being the king of the heavyweight division.
But despite his novice status, Spinks was not intimidated by Ali, and was demonstrated right from the beginning. As Ali went to the ropes and into a shell, Spinks never stopped throwing punches, even if they only landed on Ali’s arms. It was activity, and activity beats inactivity. This was part of a larger strategy where Spinks was content with ripping punches to the forearms, shoulders and body of Ali, with the intention of taking the snap out of his jab and make it harder to move later on in the fight.
Spinks, in fact, was so busy that Ali was unable to mount an effective offense. And he was giving away points in the CBS-televised 15-rounder.
Ali also began to run out of steam. It was evident that he had taken this opponent a bit too lightly. Spinks, with just a handful of fights, might have been expected to be the guy who was empty in the gas tank in the later rounds, but he still had a lot of energy. And the feeling began to build that Ali was going to need a knockout to win.
He certainly tried. In the 15th round Ali mounted a serious charge, landing with some precision combinations. But Spinks never went down, and kept coming forward. At the end, the world eagerly awaited the judges’ verdict. Suddenly, there was a lot of suspense about the result of a fight some had expected to be a walkover.
The tabulation was more charitable to Ali than some expected. Judge Art Lurie, in fact, had Ali winning 143-142 on his scorecard. But Harold Buck voted 144-141 for Spinks and Lou Tabat concurred, by a bigger margin (145-140), as the belt was put around the waist of one of its most unlikely recipients.
The victory was a shock to the boxing world. But many fans and experts had underestimated Spinks’ determination and skill, and he proved, at least on this night, that he was a force to be reckoned with. The win cemented Spinks’ place in boxing folklore as the author of one of the greatest upsets in the sport.
However, the victory was short-lived, as Spinks lost the rematch to Ali just seven months later in a unanimous decision. And his career gradually went downhill from that point. Despite all his subsequent defeats (and he suffered 17 of them before hanging up the gloves, including a one-round KO loss to a fighter making his pro debut), Spinks’ victory over Ali will always be remembered as one of the biggest accomplishments in boxing history and a testament to the determination and skill of a guy with the champion’s heart.
The way historians see it, Leon Spinks’ victory over Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship on February 15, 1978, was a defining moment in boxing history. Spinks, with so little experience, defeated one of the greatest boxers of all time in a remarkable upset, proving that anything is possible in the ring.